Take yourself back to 1999. John Elway led the Broncos to victory in Super Bowl 33, UCONN won the NCAA tournament with Rip Hamilton winning MVP honors, and the Vancouver Grizzlies were playing in the Midwest Division of the NBA.
The sports landscape has seen drastic changes over the past 20 years. Dynasties have risen and fallen. Stars have come and gone.
Some leagues have seen much parity while others have had the same dominant teams and cellar dwellers for too long.
Last month, I looked at parity across sports leagues based purely on championships. Today I will explore playoff appearances and series victories (while also incorporating championships) in an extended attempt to determine which leagues have the most parity.
I am only looking at the 4 major US sports this time around – MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL. Rather than starting my research from the beginning of time, I chose to look only at the past 20 seasons of data for each league.
It is not relevant for current sports bettors that the Celtics had a dynasty in the 50s or that the Yankees dominated baseball for decades. What is the state of those leagues now? That’s what we care about.
Knowing which leagues are prone to randomness and which tend to follow the script can positively impact both futures betting and game-to-game wagering.
Should you back the Vegas favorites or put money on a promising underdog? We’re about to get deep. Let’s dig in.
MLB – Major League Baseball Parity
World Series Matchups Since 1999
Although championships will not be the sole focus of my study, I believe you cannot talk parity without referencing who is winning the rings.
This following table shows the World Series matchups for each of the past 20 seasons, dating back to the 1999 MLB season in which the Yankees defeated the Braves.
As a nostalgic sports fan, I cannot help but relive some of these great series in my mind as I see them here. Remember the Florida Marlins or the green and purple Diamondbacks? Remember the Rangers being one strike away from glory twice?
The MLB has had 12 different champions over the past 20 seasons. An additional 8 teams have played in the World Series over the past 20 years but have not won. Given that the MLB has 30 teams, there are 10 franchises that have not reached the World Series in 20 years.
I thought it looked cool, so I included a visual representation of that last paragraph using Venngage. The blue bats are teams that have won the World Series since 1999, the red bats are those that have reached the World Series, and the green bats are those teams that have done neither.
MLB Postseason Format
There is no denying that championships are huge, but they are not the only determiner of parity. You must also consider any given franchise’s chances of making the playoffs and then their odds of winning once they make it.
The NBA and NHL allow any team with a pulse into their postseason but often pit weak, undeserving teams against juggernauts in the first round. The MLB, much like the NFL, is much more selective about which teams get to play postseason ball.
Quick history lesson: The MLB is divided into two leagues: American and National. Each league contains three divisions: East, Central, and West.
In 2013, the Astros moved from the National League Central to the American League West. This move was beneficial for baseball because it evened everything out. Each league now has 15 teams – 5 in each division.
Only 4 teams in each league qualify for a postseason series each year. The 3 division winners are given berths plus one Wild Card. With only 8 teams playing playoff series each season, the MLB has the most exclusive postseason of the 4 major sports.
In 2012, the MLB added an extra Wild Card. This rule change made the postseason more accessible, but still kept it more exclusive than that of the next closest league, the NFL.
This rule added one playoff spot in each league. In the current format, each league still holds a 4-team tournament to determine the World Series representative. The 3 division winners are guaranteed spots while the two Wild Cards meet in a one-game playoff to determine who gets to play a full series in that 4th spot.
Here is an example of the bracket. This is from the 2018 MLB postseason.
In the AL, the A’s and Yankees met for a one-game playoff to determine who played a series against the Red Sox. In the NL, the Rockies and Cubs battled for the rights to play a series against Milwaukee.
Earning a Wild Card berth and then losing in the one-game playoff still counts as a postseason appearance. The extra Wild Card rule obviously helps that 5th team which otherwise would not have made it, but it hurts the 4th team – the first Wild Card – by forcing them into a play-in game just to reach the first series.
Adding an extra playoff spot actually decreases parity in the MLB. It is now more difficult for a Wild Card team to win a championship. Winning your division grants you the easiest postseason matchups, but you have to be a very good team to do that.
MLB Playoff Appearances and Series Wins Since 1999
I was surprised to find that despite the exclusiveness of baseball’s postseason, each team had appeared in the playoffs at least once over the past 20 seasons.
The Yankees – go figure – lead baseball with 16 playoff appearances since 1999. The Miami Marlins have the fewest appearances, qualifying for postseason play just once back in 2003 when they were still the “Florida” Marlins. They made the most of it, however, winning the World Series.
I love visuals, so here is a bar graph showing the number of times each franchise has appeared in the MLB Playoffs since 1999.
Even when the Yankees are bad, they’re good. The past 20 years have been a relative dry spell for the Bronx Bombers … and they still managed to play October baseball 16 times.
There is a big difference between a team good enough to appear in the postseason and one good enough to do damage while there.
I am interested to see which of the above teams have won the most playoff series and which have won none at all. Here are the MLB teams with the most playoff series victories over the past 20 seasons.
Not every MLB team has won a playoff series in the past 20 seasons. The Expos/Nationals, Pirates, Padres, and Reds have all made the postseason but have not experienced the second round.
NFL – National Football League Parity
Superbowl Matchups Since 1999
This following table shows the Super Bowl matchups for each of the past 20 seasons, dating back to the 1999-00 NFL season in which the Rams defeated the Titans.
The Patriots have been a dominant force since the turn of the century, winning 6 rings and reaching the Super Bowl an additional 3 times. No other team has won more than twice in that span.
Despite the Patriots winning a quarter of the Super Bowls over the past two decades, a total of 12 NFL teams have tasted glory in the span. Recall that this is the exact same number of MLB teams that have won championships since 1999.
Coincidentally, there are also 8 NFL teams that have appeared in Super Bowls over the past 20 years that have not won – just like the MLB.
I wanted to visualize this again. The blue footballs below are teams that have won the Super Bowl since 1999-00, the red footballs are those that have reached the Super Bowl, and the green are those that have done neither.
Because there are 32 NFL teams and only 30 MLB teams, a smaller percentage of football teams have reached their championship game in comparison to baseball.
NFL Postseason Format
Just like baseball, the NFL postseason format is quite exclusive (few teams get in). Here is a quick breakdown:
The NFL is divided into 2 conferences – the American (AFC) and National (NFC) football conferences. With the addition of the Houston Texas in 2002, the NFL reached its current size of 32 teams. This allowed each conference to be divided into 4 divisions – East, West, North, and South – each containing 4 teams.
Each division winner earns a playoff berth. Each conference also awards two Wild Card berths. This amounts to 6 teams from each conference playing postseason football – 12 total.
The top-2 division winners in each conference receive first-round byes and do not have to play during the first weekend of the postseason. The remaining 4 teams play 2 games – the winners of which then face those top seeds who received the byes.
Here is an example of the bracket. This is from the 2019 NFL postseason.
The AFC side of the bracket is on the left in this case. The NFC is on the right. The top seeds in the AFC were the Chiefs and Patriots. The NFC bye teams were the Saints and Rams.
The Chiefs awaited the winner of Ravens-Chargers in the second round while the Pats awaited the Texans-Colts winner. Similar action was occurring on the NFC side of the bracket.
NFL Playoff Appearances and Playoff Wins Since 1999-00
Just like the MLB, each NFL team has appeared in the playoffs at least once over the past 20 seasons.
The similarities between the MLB and NFL continue. The Patriots have appeared in the postseason the most frequently since 1999-00 with 16 appearances – the same number as the Yankees.
Here is a bar graph showing the number of times each franchise has appeared in the NFL Playoffs since 1999-00.
All I can say is poor poor Browns.
They don’t play series in football – just single games. This next chart shows how many playoff games each franchise has won since the 1999-00 season.
Remember back to the MLB section? There are 4 baseball teams that have not won a playoff series in 20 years. Guess how many NFL teams have not won a playoff game in 20 years? Yep … 4.
The Browns have only had one chance to win a playoff game in the past 20 years and they obviously lost. The Bills have played 2 games, the Lions 4, and the Bengals 7 – all losses.
Which is worse? Making the playoffs just once in 20 years or losing 7 playoff games in 20 years without a win?
NBA – National Basketball Association Parity
Finals Matchups Since 1999-00
The following table shows the NBA Finals matchups for each of the past 20 seasons, dating back to the 1999-00 NBA season in which the Lakers defeated the Pacers.
Professional basketball is a sport characterized by 3 to 5-year reigns of dominance. Notice how the Lakers were powerhouses at the turn of the century, the Spurs won 3 out of 5 in the mid 2000s, and the Warriors reached 5 straight Finals in the late 2010s.
Looking strictly at championships and Finals appearances over the past 20 years, there is far less parity in the NBA than there is in both the MLB and NFL.
Only 9 different teams have hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy since the 1999-00 season. Compare this to 12 in both the MLB and NFL. What really sets the NBA apart is that only an additional 5 teams have tasted the Finals in that span.
To visualize this: the blue basketballs below are teams that have won the NBA Finals since 1999-00, the red basketballs are those that have reached the Finals, and the green are those that have done neither.
This next piece of info is a spoiler alert because I have not revealed the NHL numbers yet, but this is an appropriate time for this graphic. It shows the percentage of teams in each league that have appeared in the championship series (or championship game in the NFL’s case) in the past 20 years.
I wanted to put this in now to illustrate the NBA’s disparity in this aspect. Take a look.
Well over half of the teams in the NHL, MLB, and NFL have played in their sport’s championship series/game at least once over the past 20 years. Far fewer NBA teams can make that claim. Disparity.
NBA Postseason Format
The NBA and NHL playoff formats are extremely similar. They are what I like to call “everyone with a pulse” playoffs. Here is a quick breakdown of professional basketball’s postseason:
The NBA is home for 30 franchises. These are divided geographically into 2 conferences – East and West. Each conference contains 3 divisions of 5 teams.
Beginning in 2016, the NBA departed from the MLB/NFL mold of rewarding division winners. In the current system, the top-8 teams in each conference make the playoffs, regardless of division standing, and are seeded by record.
Because of the high volume of teams in the tournament it is common for a team with a losing record to sneak into the playoffs. This format often creates very lopsided matchups in the first round.
Some would argue a 16-team playoff awards more opportunities than a smaller one, but very few NBA teams actually hold a realistic shot of winning a championship. Only 2 teams seeded lower than #3 have ever won an NBA Finals.
The NBA Playoffs are noted for their great length – lasting from mid-April into mid-June. It really is a second season. This length is achieved by 4 rounds of 7-game series – a format paralleled only by the NHL.
Here is an example of the bracket. This is from the 2018-19 NBA postseason.
NBA Playoff Appearances and Playoff Series Wins Since 1999-00
Because so many teams qualify for the postseason each year, the NBA has more parity than the MLB and the NFL – when looking only at playoff appearances.
Here is a bar graph showing the number of times each franchise has appeared in the NBA Playoffs since 1999-00.
The Knicks, Bobcats, and Wolves are all tied for the fewest NBA playoff appearances this century with 6. Compare this to the Browns in the NFL and the Marlins in the MLB who each have appeared just once.
This next chart shows how many playoff series each franchise has won since the 1999-00 season. Here is where you can clearly see the separation between teams that barely make the playoffs and legitimate contenders.
This is where the illusion of parity disappears in the NBA. Just because you make the playoffs does not mean you are close to winning a title.
NHL – National Hockey League Parity
Stanley Cup Finals Matchups Since 1999-00
The following table shows the NHL Stanley Cup Finals matchups in each of the past 20 years, dating back to the 1999-00 NHL season in which the Devils defeated the Stars.
The Penguins and Blackhawks are tied for the most championships in this span with 3 each. Notice that there was no Stanley Cup Finals in 2005 as the entire 2004-05 season was cancelled due to a lockout.
Coincidentally, there have been 12 different NHL champions in the past 20 seasons – the same number as both the MLB and NFL.
I wanted to create a visual to show the teams that have either won or appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals. The blue hockey sticks below are NHL teams that have won a championship since 1999-00, the red sticks are those that have reached the Finals, and the green are those that have done neither.
NHL Postseason Format
As I mentioned in the previous section, the NBA and NHL playoff formats are similar. Each invites 16 teams and holds 4, best-of-7 rounds to determine a champion.
With the addition of the Vegas Knights at the beginning of the 2017-18 season, the NHL now contains 31 franchises. These are divided geographically into 2 conferences – East and West.
The Eastern Conference has 16 teams while the West has only 15. This imbalance will be remedied when the West adds an expansion team from Seattle (team nickname still undecided), which is set to take place before the 2021-22 season.
The East is broken up into two divisions of 8 while the West has a division of 8 and one of 7.
Unlike the NBA Playoffs which disregard division standings, a team’s place in their division is very important in the NHL Playoffs. Here is a brief rundown of playoff qualification and seeding in the NHL:
The top 3 teams from each division are admitted into the postseason along with 2 Wild Cards from each conference. Each conference has their own side of the bracket, each of which is broken into 2, 4-team sections. Each of these sections contains the top-3 teams from one division and one of the Wild Card teams.
Here is an example of the bracket. This is from the 2018-19 NHL postseason.
The left side of this bracket is the Western Conference and the right is the Eastern. Take a look at the top-left corner. C1, C2, and C3 are the top-3 finishers in the Central Division. Dallas is WC1 – the top Wild Card.
As the top Wild Card, Dallas is matched up against Nashville – the second-best division winner. As the second Wild Card, Colorado is matched up against the best division winner – Calgary. The same occurs in the East.
NHL Playoff Appearances and Playoff Series Wins Since 1999-00
Here is a bar graph showing the number of times each franchise has appeared in the NHL Playoffs since 1999-00.
Keeping par with the other 3 leagues, each NHL franchise has appeared in the playoffs at least once over the past 20 seasons.
The most impressive of these is the Vegas Knights – a 2017-18 expansion team. The Knights achieved unparalleled success for an expansion team in any sport, reaching the Finals in their inaugural season and qualifying for the postseason in each of their first 2 campaigns.
This next chart shows how many playoff series each of these franchises has won since the 1999-00 season.
Once again, I love the success of the Knights here. They’ve only been around for 2 seasons and have already collected more playoff series wins than 5 other established franchises.
The Penguins have built themselves quite a lead in the playoff series wins race. To save you from having to scroll up and down to see how 23 series wins in 20 years compares with the top teams of other sports, I put together this graphic.
A lot of polarizing teams on this list …
Final thoughts: We each value different things in a sports league. Some like to watch dynasties dominate while others enjoy a closely contested race.
There is no definitive answer as to which sports league has the most parity. Use this information to learn about your favorite league, understand a new one, relive past memories, or improve your futures betting strategies.
I just dumped a lot of information on you. How you use it is your call. See you on top!